Approximately 15 million U.S. residents are impacted by identity theft each year. The financial losses are staggering––over $50 billion a year. According to the Social Security Administration, identity theft is the fastest growing crime in America. For identity thieves, your social security number is one of the hottest commodities around. A criminal who steals your social security number can use it to get other personal and sensitive information about you.
For example, a thief could use your social security number to apply for an increase in credit and then use the credit card to shop, but never pay the bills. You might not find out about the theft until you apply for credit somewhere, like buying a car, and are turned down. You could even get harassing credit collection phone calls for money you never spent.
Social security numbers are meant to be confidential and the Social Security Administration protects your information, except when authorized by law to share it. I do everything I can to keep my and my family’s social security numbers under lock and key, away from prying eyes. Nowadays when someone asks me for my full social security number or my kids’ numbers, I ask why they need it, what they plan to use it for, and what will happen if I don’t give it to them. If I don’t like their answers, I politely decline their request.
A good example of this might be when a medical practice asks you to fill out a “new patient” form. It’s not hard to imagine that someone working at a busy office might easily lose track of these forms, or worse, be tempted to sell patient’s social security numbers for cash.
I know. It’s a terrible thought, and it’s so awful to have to be so suspicious of people. But, better safe than sorry.
Keeping Your Social Security Number Safe
Here are some guidelines for keeping your social security number safe:
- You should never carry your social security card with you. Keep it in a locked file cabinet at home. That way if your purse or wallet is stolen there is no chance that the thief will get their hands on it.
- Things that come in the mail may contain your social security number so make sure to bring your mail in promptly and don’t leave outgoing mail in the mailbox for the mailman. Take it to a mailbox or to the post office.
- Thieves have no problem dumpster diving or rummaging through your trash so make sure you shred everything you throw out that contains sensitive information. This can apply to junk mail too, so don’t just throw it away. Shred it so you can forget it.
- Be careful about websites that ask for your social security number. And if you do need to fill in your social security number on a form online, make sure you are accessing it through a secure connection. When in doubt, wait until you get home to your “locked” password protected Wi-Fi to fill in personal information.
- The same goes for unsolicited emails and phone calls. Don’t provide sensitive information to anyone who emails or calls you.
- When you apply for and get a job, you usually have to provide your social security number for tax purposes and to verify that you’re a citizen. Make sure the employer does not post your social security number anywhere online or print it on an I.D. badge. Files that contain your social security number should be stored securely.
- Monitor your credit report regularly to look for suspicious activity. Call your credit card issuer immediately if you suspect your card has been used fraudulently.
- Consider enrolling in a credit monitoring service, where your credit will be monitored 24/7, and you’ll be notified immediately of any suspicious activity.
What to Do If You Think Your Social Security Number Was Stolen
If you believe that someone is using your social security number for illegal purposes, you should contact the Social Security Administration immediately to report the problem by calling 1-800-772-1213 or you can visit www.socialsecurity.gov for more information. You should also go to www.idtheft.gov and report the identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), or you can call 1-877-438-4338. The FTC is a resource to learn about the crime of identity theft.
You should also contact the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as thieves can use your social security number to file a fraudulent tax return in your name and receive the refund. If someone has used your social security number to get a job, that person’s employer would report income earned to the IRS under your number and it will appear that you did not report all of your income on your legitimate tax return. If you think you have tax issues due to a stolen identity, go to www.irs.gov/uac/Identity-Protection or call 1-800-908-4490.
Image courtesy of Flickr user 401(K) 2012.